Wednesday, 26 October 2016

World Tour

Week 8: Central America

Moving north up the Americas, we could possibly get to our next destination by road, but it's a long way round, and a lot lot easier to fly. So taking off from Quito airport in Ecuador, we touch down in Costa Rica. Now I don't know much about Costa Rica other than you get good coffee beans from there, and their football team is one of a few who have embarrassed the English side in recent years. What I've recently found out though is that there's a rather excellent band from Costa Rica called The Great Wilderness.

Formed in 2009 by vocalist/guitarist Paola Rogue and drummer Andrea San Gil, The Great Wilderness released a couple of EPs and a standalone single before their debut album 'In The Hour Of The Wolf' surfaced in 2013. The early stuff was very much of a shoegaze nature, while the album saw a slight shift in dynamic with heavier drums and guitars. It's exceptionally good. But... that single, Dark Horse, from 2011 is ingeniously-titled as it might turn out to be one of the best things you'll hear on our World Tour. It's an epic beast of a track, nearly nine-minutes in length.

I've decided to post the radio edit as I don't want to give too much away - the full version can be obtained through the band's Bandcamp page on a pay-what-you-want basis (like the rest of their catalogue) so I suggest you get round there now.

We're heading for the smallest, but most densely-populated country in Central America next. We could easily fly to El Salvador in a couple of hours, but let's make it interesting, eh?  Let's drive it - 14 hours from San Jose to San Salvador all being well. Puts me in the mood for a bit of instrumental post-rock in the form of El Sueño de Camila (or ESC as they sometimes call themselves). Not exactly prolific this lot - just the three singles and an EP - but it's more about quality than quantity. Simul was their first track and wouldn't sound out of place on the new Wedding Present album!

A much shorter drive now. It's just a few hours to Guatamala City in southern Guatamala. Now this is a country that was not only ruled by dictatorships for the first four decades of the 20th Century, but dictatorships backed, for commercial reasons, by the United States government! In 1944, a successful pro-democracy military coup initiated a decade-long revolution before it was ended by another military coup backed by - guess who? Yep - the US of A - the land of the free. Ha! A long civil war followed which included the massacre of indigenous Mayans. Good old Uncle Sam, he can always be relied upon to kill and maim in the name of the American people and its own corporate interests. So glad the UK is his best friend - boy, do I feel safe!

Anyway, let's not linger too long on the down-side of Guatemalan history. We're here for music and it's where we'll find ska-punk band The Killer Tomato. They've been making a joyous racket since 2008 but have been rather sparing with the releases - just the one album and a couple EPs. The closest comparison I could make to a band you'd know would be Snuff. Great fun to listen to, even better live I would guess.

Amigos de Medio Tiempo (something like Part-Time Friends? My Spanish is worse than my Welsh...) comes from the 2014 EP 'La Gran Mudanza' which, along with the album, you can grab from The Killer Tomato's Bandcamp page for a few bob (or nowt at all, if you prefer). They have a new single there too.

Wow! I feel invigorated now, which considering the amount of miles we've covered so far is pretty good going. Continuing north next week...

Monday, 24 October 2016

50 albums to take to my grave #44: Adore Life

"I will die, maybe tomorrow / So I need to say / I adore life."

If I was to die tomorrow, I sure as hell want to take something bang up to date with me. Choosing something that only came out this year should be a tough choice. But it's not. For without a moment's hesitation, I would grab 'Adore Life' by Savages and die happy. I'm not going to go on and on about how much I love this record - regular readers already know I adore this band (pun intended). If you need reminding, see here and here. I'll probably write more about it in my end-of-year round-up.

To be fair, I'm not really sure what else I want to say about 'Adore Life'. I've written a few paragraphs and promptly deleted them as they didn't hit the mark. But what I will say is - for a young band to put this out as only their second album, one of the most assured and striking records of the year, is a remarkable feat. Let's leave it at that for now.

With 'Adore Life' in my coffin, I can probably adore death.


This frankly astonishing video conveys all the intensity of the album in one single clip. Jehnny Beth is arguably the most compelling frontperson in rock right now. In some shots she looks like she's about to kick your head in. In others, she looks like she's about to fuck your brains out. Seriously, seriously great stuff.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

"Keep me from the gallows pole..."

Here's a song with a long and fascinating history that's is kind of hard to pin down. Versions of it date back centuries and can be traced across Europe from Finland and Sweden to Lithuania and Hungary. They follow the same theme though - a condemned person (male or female) about to hang pleading with family members or spouses to bring money to bribe the executioner.

It's been done in numerous different ways over the years and as such is known by numerous different titles in English alone. An early version was called The Maid Freed From The Gallows, while other titles include The Prickly Bush and The Streets Of Derry. Lead Belly named it Gallis Pole in the '30s, from which later versions derived the name Gallows Pole (a la Led Zeppelin). In the 60s, Judy Collins recorded a version called Anathea, while Bob Dylan dubbed it Seven Curses.

I love Lead Belly's version most, but then I love Lead Belly full stop! He recorded it two or three times. The first time it appeared on 'Negro Sinful Songs' an album released in 1939 on 10" shellac. Those very early albums consisted of a number of discs contained in a bound book with a hard cover, like a photograph album. A later version by Leadbelly was recorded by Alan Lomax sometime during the 40s. I have difficulty deciding which of them I like best.

Here's a few versions of the story, including a breathtaking rendition by American folk singer John Jacob Niles which comes pretty damn close to Lead Belly's take.


Wednesday, 19 October 2016

World Tour

clockwise l-r: Kill West, Enema Noise, Aloha Haole, Sexores
Week 7: South America

There's nothing but an awful lot of water between New Zealand and South America. You could never swim it. Therefore it's a long 18hr flight that will take us to our next destination - Argentina.

Argentina has given us all kinds of significant people over the years. The current Pope (Francis) is an Argentine, as was famous revolutionary Che Guevara. Then there are the footballers - Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona... ring any bells? But let's be honest, you'd be hard pressed to name any famous Argentine rock stars, right? So we've come in search of some great music from the country, even though I don't really know where to start. However, I haven't drawn a blank!

We land in Buenos Aires which is fortunate as that's where we'll find Kill West, a band who make a rather splendid noise blending psychedelic rock with shoegaze and garage rock. Their debut album 'Smoke Beach' came out last year, and from it is the epic Signs.

We've done an awful lot of flying just lately, so for a change I'm going to move on by bus. We're crossing the border into Brazil where we've recently been gripped by the Olympics. The bus journey takes a long time. Like, 30-odd hours. I'm not sure what to expect, but I'm sure it'll be more, erm, interesting than a flight. Character-building, that's what I like to call it.

We're headed for Brasília, the purpose-built capital of Brazil. The city was built in five years between 1956 and 1961, though plans for this grand new futuristic city date right back to 1827. Anyway, history lesson over - we're here because of the charmingly-named Enema Noise, a noisy post-hardcore band. They've released three EPs to date, the most recent of which is self-titled and came out at the start of this year. It is available to download for free from their Bandcamp page, as is its predecessor from which this track Siso is taken.

Another long bus trip north to the city of Teresina to catch some extra-loud surf-punk. Apparently, Teresina is the hottest city in Brazil. And if that's not interesting enough for you, it also boasts the third highest number of major lightening incidents in the world!

Aloha Haole have made a mini-album, an EP and a single in the last two years. You kind of know what to expect from them after hearing just a couple of tunes, but they're great fun nonetheless. The vid is for Haole On The Beach, a track from their debut, and uses footage from some old surf movie, while the MP3 is a song taken from its not-so-subtly-titled follow-up. It mashes together Dick Dale's classic Misirlou and the Theme From Mission Impossible with a bit of Batman thrown in.

Sod this bussing lark, my next journey will take days, so I'm hopping on another plane. From north east Brazil, we head to the tiny (by comparison) nation of Ecuador on Brazil's north west border. In the capital Quito we'll find a really good dreampop/shoegaze band called Sexores... oh, wait a minute, they recently relocated to Barcelona. Ah well, no matter, they're still considered to be locals.

Since 2010, Sexores have released a number of records that fit right in with the whole shoegaze revival that's been in full swing for the past few years. Their latest EP 'Red Rooms' came out in July, but here's a couple of earlier songs; the video for Techos Rotos from 2014's 'Historias de Frío', and the quite frankly wonderful Titán, a single from the previous year.

Northbound next week...

Monday, 17 October 2016

50 albums to take to my grave #43: An End Has A Start

Not for the first time I'm going against convention here. Most people will take Editors' debut album 'The Back Room' over everything else they did. But for me, the band's masterpiece was its follow-up, 2007's 'An End Has A Start'.

When I heard the album's lead single Smokers Outside The Hospital Doors, it stopped me in my tracks. I thought then what a fucking phenomenal track it was, and that hasn't changed in the intervening period. It was clear the band had moved on from the 80s post-punk vibe of the first album to something that required much larger spaces to gain full effect. The mood continues with the title track, and songs like Bones, The Racing Rats and Escape The Nest sound like they're striving for even bigger things. There's no doubt, Editors were announcing their arrival once and for all.

Yet for all the bombast and anthemic qualities of these big hitters, the absolute pinnacle of Editors' entire career (in my opinion) was reached by one of their tenderest, most moving tracks. The Weight Of The World has a Phil Spector drum beat and an absolutely heartbreaking vocal by Tom Smith. This song moves me to the verge of tears.

  "You touch my face / God whispers in my ear

  There are tears in my eyes."

I saw Editors at, of all places, Newport Centre on the 'An End Has A Start' tour and had I not seen Arcade Fire later that same month, it would have been the best gig of the year. Definitely one of the best live bands I've ever seen though, they were incredible. The energy of Tom Smith was breathtaking, and the new songs sounded massive.

Since this record, Editors have nosedived. The next album was a brave, if ineffective stab at electronica, while their fourth album sounded like they couldn't decide whether they wanted to sound like Echo & The Bunnymen or U2. They sounded like neither and the songs weren't that great either. Fortunately last year's 'In Dream' began to pick up the pieces and form them into something fairly credible again. But they are still a long, long way off making me feel how I do when I hear 'An End Has A Start'.


Here's another of the album's singles.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

The Genius Of Nick Cave

#20: The Mercy Seat

Very probably Nick Cave's finest - and most darkly sinister - moment. The Mercy Seat was the first Cave song I heard and it sent chills through me - a convicted killer about to meet his maker in the electric chair, still denying his evil deeds as the vast current surges through him... until his confessional last breath. It's a song that has undergone many reworkings for live performances over its 28 years, each one as disturbing and horrific as the next. When taken on by Johnny Cash in 2000, it seemed even darker, though when Johnny sang it, you kind of felt sympathy for the protagonist. Nick's character is just pure evil.

This series was planned to take us up to Christmas, but I think it has run its course for the time being. Certainly most of you lost interest weeks ago. Therefore, I'm going to rest it for a while (for good?) and try something different from next week.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

World Tour

l-r: Royal Headache; Scott & Charlene's Wedding; Die! Die! Die
Week 6: Down Under

Flying south, leaving Asia, we arrive in good old Australia, where we have long been familiar with all sorts of great bands over the years. Now we all know about Jagwar Ma who seem to be capturing the spirit of early 90s Madchester. And then, of course, there's Courtney Barnett who it has now become compulsory to love - and rightly so. As tempted as I am to post something by her, my mission is to seek out things we may not already be familiar with. So instead, here's a couple of up-and-coming acts that have grabbed me. It just so happens they're both from New South Wales. Now that's not me being biased, it's just turned out that way. Interestingly both Jagwar Ma and Courtney Barnett are also from NSW, so perhaps that's where things are happening right now.

Royal Headache hail from Sydney and have a kind of garage rock R&B feel to them, not unlike The Strypes only not as glossy. To date, they've released two albums, both available on their Bandcamp page. Their latest - last year's 'High' - has some cracking tunes on it, including the title track and the single Carolina.

Then there's the brilliantly-monikered Scott & Charlene's Wedding from Melbourne. They sound kind of like The Velvet Underground if Jonathan Richman had been a member, and have three albums to their name, their latest having just been released this summer. I suppose that makes them relative veterans. Anyway, here's the video for a track from 2013's 'Any Port In A Storm', plus the title track from last year's 'Delivered' EP.

We're boarding a flight from Melbourne, headed for New Zealand's southern island. Landing in Queenstown, we can take a bus to our destination of Dunedin where we'll find the really rather good Die! Die! Die!, a noisy post-punk trio who have been around for quite a while now, but are still not terribly well-known outside their homeland. One of my favourite discoveries on my journey so far, this lot. Really liking their sound.

The video features a track from last year's 'What Did You Expect?' EP, while the MP3 is the superb title track from the band's fourth album.

Leaving NZ eastbound for the Americas. Note to self: pack Spanish phrasebook...

Monday, 10 October 2016

50 albums to take to my grave #42: Tir

I have an autographed copy of the limited book edition of this CD. Cerys Matthews actually held it in her fair hands and wrote her name on it. It is one of my most prized possessions. It probably would be even if the music it contained wasn't so delightful, but the fact it is also one of the most gorgeously-sounding things I own makes it even more special.

'Tir' is Welsh for 'land', perhaps most particularly 'Land of my fathers' (although another word for land - wlad or gwlad - is preferred in that translation). It's a collection of "folk/traditional items, Victorian so-called 'national' songs, a couple of hymns and our national anthem" arranged and interpreted by Cerys. It makes me go all weak at the knees.

Opening with one of Wales' best-loved songs, Sosban Fach (The Little Saucepan), 'Tir' enchants right to the final note. If you've ever spent time in Wales, or if you've seen an international rugby match featuring the Welsh national side, you will have heard some of these songs being bellowed with true gusto by the fervent supporters. Here, though, Cerys treats them with tenderness, a loving care so befitting of her love of her family's history and ancestry. The pages of the CD book contain wonderful old photographs from her family album going right back to the late 19th century. They serve to add some sort of context to the songs therein, as do notes on the songs' origins alongside Welsh and English transcriptions of the lyrics.

Other 'big hits' include Calon Lân (Pure Heart), Cwm Rhondda (which literally translates as Rhondda Valley, but is better known as Bread Of Heaven), and of course, the mighty national anthem Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land Of My Fathers), which many of you will have heard during Wales' extraordinary Euro 2016 campaign. But there are plenty of other hidden gems. Myfanwy has, for generations, been Wales' favourite love song, so beloved of male voice choirs and folk-singers alike; the bilingual Cân Merthyr (Merthyr Song) is sung with relish, and Ar Lan Y Môr (On The Sea Shore) is divine and even has a Dylan-esque harmonica solo. There's even room for a duet with Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel.

I love Wales as a nation, as a people, as a country. Like most countries (and people) it has its flaws, but even as an outsider - a pesky Saesneg - I get all dewy-eyed when I listen to this record. A lot of it is probably down to Cerys, my adoration of whom I've made no secret of. She most definitely makes 'Tir' what it is, and though it's only six years old, I'm convinced this album will join me even if I go to my grave in 16, 26 or - god forbid - 36 years time.


Saturday, 8 October 2016

The Genius Of Nick Cave

#19: As I Sat Sadly By Her Side

After 'The Boatman's Call', Nick overcame his heroin and alcohol addictions, meaning it took four years for his next record to appear. 'No More Shall We Part' initially received mixed reviews, but with hindsight it actually has some exceptional songs on it. It opened with As I Sat Sadly By Her Side, a solemn discussion between a man and a woman about the human condition, with a kitten in a cameo role. Nick ends the song smiling, the woman crying.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

World Tour

l-r: Chestnut Bakery, Cambodian Space Project, Zee Avi

Week 5: The Far East

As we head east, I should point out I'm not going to Japan on this journey as I've already covered that terrific country in some detail and I may yet return. So instead we're flying from Kandahar to Guangzhou in China (via a stopover in New Delhi). China is huge and is becoming more and more open to Western culture. As a result, there's a lot of good music coming out of the country that may warrant further investigation at a later point, but today we're in the town of ZhuHai in the south east to catch a band who released their debut album 'Diaries' last year to much acclaim.

Chestnut Bakery cite Mazzy Star and Slowdive among their influences so you can probably guess the sort of music they make. Their record company calls them "the most 90s shoegaze band in China." 25 years ago, they'd have been a perfect fit for 4AD.

From southern China, we fly to southern Cambodia. This is a country that had a thriving rock & roll scene before the Khmer Rouge purged the country of all its musicians and artists. In the less than five years of its rule from 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge was directly responsible for millions of deaths through execution, starvation and illness. It abolished all education, religion, conventional medicine, privacy and arts. It was one of the worst atrocities in the history of mankind.

Thankfully, Cambodia is recovering, although it suffers from corruption and poor workers' rights. Tourism is a thriving industry however, and there's plenty for us to do here, including getting immersed in its music scene. One of the country's most famous musical exports is The Cambodian Space Project. Formed in 2009 in Phnom Penh by Tasmanian tourist Julien Poulsen and local singer Srey Thy, CSP cover songs from the 60s (Cambodian music's so-called 'golden age'), and compose their own brand of Khmer psychedelic rock.

To date, they have released two albums: '2011: A Space Odyssey' and 'Whiskey Cambodia' in 2014. Here's a track from each.

And here's a wonderful documentary about the Cambodian music scene pre-Khmer Rouge and what happened to its stars when Pol Pot came to power. It's called 'Don't Think I've Forgotten (Cambodia's Lost Rock And Roll)' and I recommend it highly. It also illustrates to us the very real danger of extreme political ideologies becoming reality. Hard to believe any of it actually happened.

Another flight, this time from Phnom Penh to Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia. Here we'll find singer-songwriter Zee Avi. Well, actually she lives in the States now but you get my drift. Aged 21, she made her live debut in her home city. One of her best friends missed the show so Zee posted a recording of one of her songs on You Tube for her. Plenty of others saw the clip and, encouraged by their response, Zee posted more and more. This led to her being spotted by a member of the Raconteurs who tipped of the manager of the White Stripes, who passed the tip onto Brushfire Records, a label partly owned by Jack Johnson.

In 2009, she released her eponymous debut album and toured the States with Jack Johnson and Pete Yorn, as well as a slew of festival dates including SXSW and Bonnaroo. Since then, two more albums have followed, including 2014's 'Nightlight', an album of lullabies which, somewhat curiously, includes versions of Bobby McFerrin's Don't Worry Be Happy and the Velvet Underground's Who Loves The Sun. I previously featured Zee Avi on one of my old podcasts with her take on a Morrissey song, so she's no stranger to unexpected cover versions.

Heading south next week to another continent.